March 27, 2012

Setbacks only strengthen resolve of UMass-Boston's Ennis

By Mike Zhe

Jimmy Ennis could never get mad at hockey. 

UMass-Boston senior captain Jimmy Ennis survived a brain tumor as a 13-year-old. (Photo courtesy of UMass-Boston Athletics)

Not even after its itch caused him to transfer from his first college. Not even after he was kept on the bench at UMass-Boston longer than he thought he should have been his first season. Not even after he got caught up in a numbers game as a junior and suited up for just nine games.

Ennis, 23, isn’t your typical Division 3 senior. His career line chart is less steady progression than it is peaks and valleys.

Not that he has a whole lot of time to analyze it. He’s paying for his education by working three part-time jobs: on campus as a trainer in the Beacon Fitness Center and also assisting in the strength-and-conditioning program, and off campus at The Junction in South Boston, where he works the door and stocks the inventory.

And, when he was 13, he almost died.

Only hockey wouldn’t let him.

This is the good part of the story for Ennis, a 5-foot-10 forward from Roslindale, Mass., who’s enjoying his best college season. He’s captaining a UMass-Boston team that was playing as well as anybody in the ECAC East at the end of February, riding an 11-4-1 surge to a fifth-place finish after a 2-5-2 start.

His nine goals and 19 points have bettered the totals he entered the year with, and his hat trick in a 5-2 win against Southern Maine last month was a Senior Day performance nobody who was there will forget.

It’s also a moment he wasn’t sure he’d ever get a chance to experience.

Ten years ago, a 13-year-old Ennis was playing on a Bridgewater Bandits midget team when he took a hard hit. His coaches, probably ahead of the curve back then when it came to recognizing and treating concussions, immediately sent him to the hospital for a CT scan.

Doctors saw what they were looking for, plus something else.

A brain tumor.

“Had I waited a little bit longer, it might have been too big to get removed,” Ennis said.

Ennis underwent surgery at Children’s Hospital and was sidelined for seven months after that as he recovered.

“He had to learn how to speak, walk and talk again,” said UMass-Boston coach Peter Belisle (Manville, R.I.).

Like most people, Belisle found out about Ennis’ harrowing medical experience after the fact. Quiet and unassuming, with no desire to attract attention to himself, Ennis applies a no-nonsense, straightforward approach whether he’s on the ice or off. His high school coach at Boston Latin, Frank Woods, learned about the brain tumor only when contacted for this story last month.

“He was a pretty private kid when we had him,” Woods said. “Didn’t say a whole lot, but a hell of a competitor. There’s no way he would say something like that unless he was prompted.”

At Boson Latin, Ennis teamed up with future Tufts star Tom Derosa (Charlestown, Mass.) and led the Wolfpack to a Division 2 state championship in 2004-05, the last one the program has won.

“You can’t measure his competitiveness,” Woods said. “He did not like to lose. He took it personal. He held himself accountable and he held other people accountable. Other people played better because they knew how much it meant to him.”

Coming out of Boston Latin, Ennis was strong enough academically to earn a partial scholarship to Merrimack College. But after a semester, he realized that hockey was something he was sorely missing. He called Belisle, who made no promises and, oh, by the way, had a big freshman class coming in and couldn’t guarantee playing time.

“I remember checking my notes on him,” Belisle said, “and I didn’t really have any notes. But I gave him a look and he made the team.”

It took seven games for Ennis to crack the Beacons’ lineup, which he finally did for a December game at Babson. He was a fixture the rest of the way and an everyday guy on the fourth line as a sophomore, collecting four goals and nine points.

But by his junior year he was again on the outside looking in, his role as a fourth-line chucker and penalty-killer usurped by a pair of seniors. He’d dress for just nine games all season, though he tried to stay upbeat.

Two weeks after the season ended with a disappointing loss on home ice to Southern Maine in the ECAC East quarterfinals, his coach informed him that he’d be captaining the team in 2011-12.

“The team made him the captain,” Belisle said, “because of how he handled that.”

“I really didn’t see it coming,” Ennis said, “but I did think I deserved it. I knew I had an impact on the locker room.”

This current surge has been his best stretch of college hockey. He’s played every game and ranks fourth on the Beacons (13-9-3, 9-8-1 ECAC East) in scoring, behind senior forward Anthony Fitti (10-17-27), junior forward Mike DeGrazia (10-14-24) and sophomore forward Travis Daniel (5-17-22). His hat trick against Southern Maine earned him Player of the Week honors in the ECAC East for the first time ever.

As New England Hockey Journal went to press, the Beacons were preparing to play fourth-place Skidmore for a trip to the ECAC East semifinals.

But even if things weren’t going well, Ennis would still be coming to the rink every day, lacing up the skates, strapping on the pads and being grateful to be able to play the game he loves.

“Hockey is what saved my life,” he said. “My life was almost taken from me. Having that redemption, I don’t think there’s anything in life that can be as rewarding, than to have a second chance.”

This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Mike Zhe can be reached at mzhe@hockeyjournal.com